Secrecy cloaks Putin talks
US President Trump hidden details of pair’s conversations
US President Donald Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On at least one occasion he took possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructed the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other Administration officials, current and former US officials said.
Trump did so after a meeting with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg that was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. US officials learned of Trump’s actions when a White House adviser and a senior State Department official sought information from the interpreter.
US officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years.
Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what US intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.
Former US officials said that previous presidents have relied on senior aides to witness meetings and take comprehensive notes then shared with other officials and departments.
Trump’s secrecy surrounding Putin “is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous,” said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state now at the Brookings Institution. “It handicaps the US government . . . and it certainly gives Putin much more scope to manipulate Trump.”
A White House spokesman disputed that characterisation and said the Trump Administration has sought to “improve the relationship with Russia” after the Obama Administration “pursued a flawed ‘reset’ policy that sought engagement for the sake of engagement”.
The Trump Administration “has imposed significant new sanctions in response to Russian malign activities,” said the spokesman, who noted that Tillerson in 2017 “gave a fulsome readout of the meeting immediately afterward to other US officials in a private setting, as well as a readout to the press.”
Trump allies said the President thinks the presence of subordinates impairs his ability to establish a rapport with Putin, and that his desire for secrecy may also be driven by embarrassing leaks that occurred early in his presidency.
The meeting in Hamburg happened several months after news organisations revealed details about what Trump had told senior Russian officials during a meeting in the Oval Office. Trump disclosed classified information about a terror plot, called former FBI Director James Comey a “nut job” and said firing Comey had removed “great pressure” on his relationship with Russia.
Congressman Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his panel will form an investigative subcommittee whose targets will include seeking State Department records of Trump’s encounters with Putin, including a closed-door meeting in Helsinki last year.
Trump has taken actions and positions seen as favourable to the Kremlin. He has called Russia’s election interference a “hoax”, suggested Russia was entitled to annex Crimea, repeatedly attacked Nato allies, resisted efforts to impose sanctions on Moscow, and begun to pull US forces out of Syria.
Trump’s decision to fire Comey and other attempts to contain the Russia investigation led the bureau in May 2017 to launch a counterintelligence probe into whether he was seeking to help Russia and if so, why.
It is not clear whether Trump has taken notes from interpreters on other occasions, but officials said they were never able to get a reliable readout of his two-hour meeting in Helsinki. Trump allowed no Cabinet officials or aides in the room.
He also spoke at length to Putin at a banquet in Hamburg, where only Putin’s interpreter was present. Trump had a brief conversation with Putin at a G20 summit in Buenos Aires last month. Trump generally has allowed aides to listen to his phone conversations with Putin.
There is no detailed record of what US President Donald Trump said to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.